Bea Van Demark Isaak
b. April 24, 1937 – d. October 6, 2021
“If music be the food of love, play on.” – William Shakespeare
Mary Margaret Van Demark Isaak, affectionately called Bea, was a pianist, singer, and teacher. She will “play on” through her family, piano students, musical partners, and audiences. Bea's love of music, which ranged from Chopin to the Great American Song Book to Renaissance polyphony, created connections with people in every community she joined, from a Filipino church in Oakland, California, to a retirement community in Stillwater, Minnesota.
Bea, age 84, died after a year-long battle with cancer, surrounded by family and listening to the music she loved, especially Chopin. As with every challenge she faced in life, Bea moved through the ordeals of surgery, radiation, and various treatments with grace and humor. Her joie de vivre masked both pain and disruption as she played for friends and neighbors gathered beneath her balcony during the pandemic. As a founder of Great Music at Boutwells Landing retirement community, she not only helped organize musical programs, but she also was the driving force in raising money for a spectacular grand piano, so the audience would hear music at its best. Bea's ready wit continued to the very end; when an aide asked, "Water or prune juice?” she replied, "I'll take Champagne.”
The daughter of Bernard and Margaret Hart Van Demark of Owatonna, Minnesota, Bea grew up in a music-loving Irish home where singing filled the air. Bea fondly recalled her dad walking home from work singing "My Blue Heaven." She would affectionately recall her grandmother, Sadie Hart, singing Irish tunes like "The Low-Backed Car."
Her own musical development was fostered at St. Mary's School, where Franciscan nuns gave her piano lessons. Bea was soon recruited to play the organ at the daily 7:00 am Mass, which meant lots of early morning walks to the church.
She attended St. Catherine University in St. Paul, where she majored in music and education; she graduated magna cum laude and was named to Phi Beta Kappa. A highlight was playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Minneapolis Symphony in my senior year, which Bea referred to as a “dream come true.”
After graduating, she taught music at a public school in East Hartford, Connecticut, pushing the sole piano down hallways to various classrooms. She then went on to complete a master’s degree in piano at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she met and married Donald J. Isaak, who was completing a Ph.D. in piano and harpsichord. Don’s academic career took them to Arizona, where he taught at Arizona State University, and they performed together in multiple venues. While in Arizona, Bea and Don started their family with the birth of their two daughters, Katie and Meg. The family moved back to Evanston in 1971, when Don took a teaching position in the piano department of Northwestern’s School of Music.
In addition to giving piano lessons for beginner to professional-level students, Bea performed with and enjoyed the camaraderie of a piano repertoire group on Chicago’s North Shore. Bea and Don performed together frequently and brought a rarely matched enthusiasm to their dinner parties as well as their musical performances—an enthusiasm that earned them lasting friendships with the Termolens, the Thavius, and many others.
She also judged piano competitions through the university level, particularly the Thaviu-Isaak Violin and Piano Competition at Northwestern, founded in honor of her husband, who died in 1996.
After Don’s death, Bea joined daughter Meg and brother Tom in Oakland, California, and reinvented herself. She left a mountain of antiques behind, got her Steinway rebuilt, and joined a Bay Area piano club. After a fervent hunt she found a parish to fit her musical needs where the entire congregation joined in singing the hymns. She jumped on public transportation to volunteer at the San Francisco Symphony, where she earned an award for highest CD sales thanks to her vast musical knowledge and jovial disposition. She also volunteered at the local kindergarten and took the class to the SFO for Kids Days. Always keen to maintain communication with friends, family and students near and far, she renewed old friendships with local St. Kate’s alumnae. When Meg moved and was married in Florence, Italy, Bea invested time learning Italian to better communicate with her new family members on her much beloved annual trips to Florence and Rome.
In 2015, she decided there was no place like home and moved back to Minnesota to live at Boutwells Landing where she made many new friends and fans.
Beyond the gift of teaching and performing, Bea gave unconditional love and support to her children and grandchildren. Family trips, celebrations, and visits were highlighted in her annual Christmas letters. Especially notable among these trips was the 2018 trip to Italy with the Ginsbergs (including all three grandchildren) to celebrate the holidays and New Year with Meg and Matteo (and his family) in Florence and Rome. Despite distance, Bea prioritized time with her children and grandchildren, who will always remember the lightness and laughter she brought with her and her genuine interest in hearing about/watching/learning from what each was pursuing.
Her family is indebted to her loving Boutwell’s friends, who lifted her spirits in good times and bad, including Elaine C., Jacque Z., Louise L., Nancy D., Connie and Jimmy, Judith and Ralph, and many others, including her ping-pong playing buddies like Ken and Herman. Bea’s family is very grateful to Father Jerry Keiser for his steadfast support and admiration for Bea, who knew her well through her weekly playing for mass. Bea was contemplative and contemporary about her faith. Her Catholic faith gave her strength, a beautiful appreciation of life, and sense of purpose as she contributed to whatever parish she joined.
We also wish to acknowledge the help of Pastor Kris Linner and Pastor Erik Anderson, as well as to Bea’s caregivers. In particular, we wish to thank Trudi L., who not only assisted with Bea’s health and well-being needs, but also took the time to get to know her and learn from her vast knowledge of music, history, art and more. Her family also wishes to recognize Bonnie R. and the Lakeview Hospice team and The Gables staff for their support and care.
Besides her husband, Bea is preceded in death by her older brother Mike Van Demark.
Bea is survived by her loving family: daughter Katie Isaak Ginsberg and son-in-law Peter Ginsberg of New York; daughter Meg Isaak and son-in-law Matteo Custodero of Italy; her sister Sarah Flanagan and brother-in-law Don Flanagan; her brother Tom Van Demark; her brother James (JB) Van Demark and sister-in-law Amy Blum; and her sister-in-law Georgia Van Demark. Bea is also survived by grandchildren William and wife Maddy Ginsberg; Maeve Ginsberg; and Gregory Ginsberg; and by many nieces and nephews. She instilled in them a love of life, learning and curiosity. She adored and gave her love to all of them.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Northwestern University Thaviu-Isaak Piano Scholarship or St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
“And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” –William Shakespeare
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Bea Van Demark Isaak, please visit our floral store.